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Indie 500: Vampire Weekend, Cat Power, and The Dø

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Indie 500: Vampire Weekend, Cat Power, and The Dø

Heh. Back in November, when I first wrote up Vampire Weekend, I noted that “they’re quite possibly the best thing to happen to trust-fund rock since The Strokes.” I didn’t go any further in this direction because I was hoping/praying that what happened with the Strokes’ debut wouldn’t happen: namely, that a vengefully impoverished music press wouldn’t fixate on VW’s collective wealth and use the music as a pretext to attack everything we are not. Last time, the debate fixated on the retarded question of whether or not The Strokes’ wealth and co-option of garage influences made them less “authentic.”

This time, no one’s even questioning the quality/derivation of the music; they’ve just skipped to accusing VW of being the second coming of musical Reagan neo-cons or some even less coherent argument. Tom Breihan offers up a comprehensive enough precis of the fracas thus far. Within the weekly’s actual pages, you can find Julianne Shepherd complaining, among other things, “I bet these guys read sheet music.” (Note to self: immediately expunge from iTunes anything featuring string arrangements.) What?

The idea here, I guess, is that VW shot themselves in the foot the instant they wrote non-populist songs about anti-populist types: Louis Vuitton shoppers, Ivy League English majors. Is it the wealth, or does the fact that they have no obvious chips on their shoulders make it worse? Rufus Wainwright came from money and musical nepotism and slathered his songs in strings—but I guess he’s gay and troubled, so that makes it OK? The hating is doubly puzzling because the music just isn’t hateable qua music—just as it can’t excite the most passionate devotion either, at least not on my part. VW’s official full-length debut makes all the right moves, from its sonic clean-up job (a better budget makes the demo obsolete: this version is still charmingly sparse, but the drums, keyboards et al. are far more vibrant) to the canny inclusion of two new songs stretching their range just enough to fend off haters who think they’re a one-trick pony (“I Stand Corrected” tames Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates”, backwards loops into something surprisingly not gut-wrenching-depressing). It’s also a little too restrained to aim for the majestic more than once—“Walcott” remains their best song, demonstrating, like Mercury Rev’s long-ago “Delta Blues Bottleneck Stomp,” that a pounding house beat is most energizing in a song where it seemingly has no business showing up. But no one’s disputing VW’s skill as musicians and arrangers—bloggers just can’t agree if they’re good or evil. And, unless we’re talking Skrewdriver, that’s a debate that’s pointless and near-impossible to have on the music pages. Save it for the drunken bar-rants please.

VW aren’t the single greatest innovation in recent twee-pop—I’ll be discussing Los Campesinos! in a few weeks, and if there’s any justice their even more accomplished songs will set off incendiary blog posts for their snarky disses of damn near every contemporary musical trend—but they’re a fine second-tier band nonetheless, purveying stripped-down indie pop even people who don’t dig the genre dig: they’ve got Death Cab for Cutie’s cross-over potential while actually deserving it, and that’s saying a lot. Is that where the bile’s coming from—pre-emptive hatred before the band can become as wealthy from their music as their families were when they sent them off to college?

~

I can’t claim to be the most studious devotee of Cat Power’s back catalogue, but I’m still dismayed by where she’s going musically. A single like 2003’s “He War” makes as great a use of negative space as any given Spoon song—its simple piano chords, minimal guitar, and the single most restrained drum part Dave Grohl’s ever played in his life. But Chan Marshall went from notoriously erratic, frequently prematurely abortive live shows to sobriety and a new sound keeping in touch with her new-found maturity. The maturity will have to be reckoned all personal though; like 2006’s The Greatest, Jukebox is a terrific opener followed by 11 songs in search of their focal points as songs, not just moods. The last album’s “Lived In Bars” could serve as a key reference point here, except the idea is more like “Sang In Bars”: that jukebox is a collection of standards for people who think nothing goes better with hard drinking than Aretha Franklin and Hank Williams.

In other words, Cat Power’s a born-again traditionalist; she may not be expressly repudiating her previous knack for spiky melancholia, but she’s found comfort in more socially time-tested modes of expressing it. The Greatest drowned in its saving graces of brass arrangements from old studio pros—Marshall genuflected to their “authenticity” (that word again!) without for a moment seeming like she was thoughtlessly co-opting it or being insincere. But Jukebox places the attention where, arguably, it has no place: Marshall’s voice. It’s a pretty good one—smoky, serene—but not the bold stuff interpreters are made of. Now that she’s cleaned up, she’s channeling past sorrows through people who did it long before her, and there’s something prefab and annoying about this attitude: “Look,” the logic goes, “Billie Holiday suffered, and now everyone admires her music and mythologizes her personal tragedy as part and parcel of the end-product. I’m not suffering, and I’m doing the songs!”

I doubt the actual reasoning process was nearly that cynical—Cat Power’s nothing if not sincere—but still: just because she’s flattened out Hank Williams and James Brown to the same consistency doesn’t mean I have to admire it. Every song plays out the same: after the admirably menacing opening stab at “New York, New York,” everything is in the same lazy great American mythology: lost women, deserted bars with the down-and-outs, riding with your equally lost man down the open road sadly wondering what’ll come of it all. Who cares, you know? It’s all the same myth, and frankly Robert Frank should’ve killed this shit years ago, back when people still found it evocative of something besides cliche. This morning I heard a guy on the subway platform just killing “Knockin On Heaven’s Door”: he was circling that last line over and over, for an eternity that lasted at least 3 minutes, mangling the words over and over (at one point, I could’ve sworn “Knocking out” came out “I’m not gay”). He wasn’t as talented, but his belief in the emotional power of his default mode of performance was so strong that I thought he and Cat Power would’ve gotten along just fine.

~

Rarely does this blog get to be on the cutting edge, so I’ll cut to the chase: just listen to The Dø, quickly, now, before they get signed and blow up and everyone pretends to be sick of them. As of press time, The Dø’s debut A Mouthful has no US representation, which is a damn shame. Olivia B. Merilahti and dude Dan (for the life of me, I can’t find his last name anywhere) make like Beck in half-castrated duo form. Popping in their album, you get the instant feeling that yes, you’ll be overplaying this massively for the next few months. Opener “Playground Hustle” has Olivia making like M.I.A. in middle-school, leading the other kids on the playground to pointless but fun insurrection: drums, fifes and juvenile punk chants. Merilahti’s voice is somewhere between the most annoying Poly Styrene screech of all time (in a good way) and the capacity for pretty ballads: the album’s somewhere between. The ballads are pretty without being stock, the weirdo-freakouts are perfectly catchy (“This is pretty damn queer oh shit” blurts out “Queen Dot King” for no good reason before pulling off something the Spice Girls or Girls Aloud would envy—then back to the string coda, without missing a beat), and the whole thing needs minimal talking up. I wish I had more to say, and hopefully the Internet will chip in at some point: this band needs coverage. For now, I promise that you should click these links (some kind soul has uploaded the whole thing to YouTube, so poke around while it’s still there) and get hooked: this is the most ambitious pop-formalist tour I’ve heard in a while, without all the sterile connotations that holds.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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